Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Michelangelus

'Portrait of Michelangelo',
Marcello Venusti, 1535.
Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti is unique. He is in a category of one to have achieved immortality in all three visual arts fields: painting, sculpture and architecture. His name is synonymous with “masterpiece”.

Michelangelo was born of minor nobility. His father was the podesta (chief magistrate) in Caprese, Tuscany. The second of five brothers, he was born 6 March 1475. His father noted in what could have been his blog "Today, a child of the male sex has been born to me and I have named him Michelangelo. He was born on Monday between 4 and 5 in the morning”. Despite his birthplace, Michelangelo always considered himself a "son and citizen of Florence.” Florence was where Michelangelo grew up.

His mother was too sick to nurse him so he was placed with a wet nurse in a family of stone cutters. In his own words he “sucked in the craft of hammer and chisel with my foster mother's milk”. His real mother died when he was six years old.

At age 13, he was apprenticed to Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio who was renowned for his chiaroscuro and perspective techniques. Michelangelo also learnt to sculpt and his early talent got him an invite into the school of design (and eventually the household) of Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of Florence. Lorenzo was known as Il Magnifico and a great patron of the arts as well as an astute politician. His support for Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, Botticelli, del Verocchio as well as Michelangelo made Florence the centre of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. Michelangelo lived and dined with the Medici family. Here he created his earliest known reliefs, the Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs.

Lorenzo died in 1492 when Michelangelo was 17 years old. With his death, the centre of the Renaissance switched to Rome and the ambitions of the popes. The Medici family were expelled from Florence in 1494 by the Dominican priest Savonarola who turned the city into a theocracy. His followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, burning artwork, cosmetics, mirrors and books. He went too far and was hanged and burned that same year after an excommunication order from the pope.

Florence under Savonarola was no safe place for a radical artist. Michelangelo fled to Venice and then to Bologna before landing in Rome in 1497. There he made his marble sculpture the Pietà which now adorns its own chapel in St Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is a masterpiece of classical harmony, beauty and restraint. It is the only work with his signature. Enraged that someone thought it a fake, he carved MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBAT (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this) on the sash running across Mary's breast. It was the only work he ever signed. He later regretted his petulance and swore never to sign another.

Michelangelo returned to Florence after the fall of Savonarola and was commissioned by the Wool Guild to do a colossal statue of David as a symbol of Florentine freedom, to be placed in the Piazza della Signoria. Arguably his greatest sculpture, David took three years to complete, and was finished in 1504. It was unique among representations of the biblical David in that it shows him tensed and ready for combat rather than victorious and standing over Goliath as in most other depictions. The sculpture was moved indoors in 1873 to preserve it from the weather and a replica now stands in the Piazza.

On completion, Michelangelo was summoned back to Rome by the new pope Julius II. Known as “the Warrior Pope”, Julius took the papacy out of the shackles of the Borgias and had great plans to rebuild the Vatican. He laid the foundation stone of the new St Peter's in 1506. Michelangelo was commissioned to design the Pope’s tomb. Due to constant interruptions, this took the next 40 years and was never finished.

One such interruption was the request to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This was a great fresco work which took four years. Fresco means fresh in Italian and artists race against time to paint before it dries on freshly laid plaster. Michelangelo worked with the greatest fresco artists of the day to complete the painting. The detail on the ceiling is astonishing. There are nine scenes from the book of Genesis. These are surrounded by a vast cast of prophets, sibyls and the ancestors of Christ. Immediately celebrated, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with its innumerable figures in complex, twisting poses and its exuberant use of colour, became the chief source of inspiration for the style that became known as Mannerism. In this period, he also found time to sculpt his magnificently muscular Moses which was meant for the Vatican but is now the pride and joy of the otherwise modest church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains).

Michelangelo returned to Florence in the 1520s where he received his first great commission as an architect for the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo. But his life was about to be complicated by European politics. In 1527 Rome was sacked in the War of the League of Cognac by the Spanish emperor Charles V. Charles formed an unholy alliance between Spain and the Holy Roman Empire (which confusingly was nowhere near Rome) to defeat France and the Italian city states including those of Pope Clement VII.

In response to these turbulent times, the republic of Florence was created. The city was besieged by the Medici (now working for Charles V) for two years. Michelangelo was a passionate supporter of the republic and helped to build the city fortifications. They held out for two years. When the Medici reign was restored in 1530, Michelangelo left the city, disillusioned by the great family that succoured his youth but was now just another repressive regime. He went back to Rome to work on the fresco of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel before designing the dome for the new St Peter’s basilica.

The Last Judgement was condemned for its nudity and Michelangelo was called the "inventor delle porcherie" (the inventor of porky things, the twee local word for obscenities.) But it is a truly remarkable work well beyond the euphemisms of scandalised friars. It depicts an awesome event. We are taken to the end of the world, and Christ the God stands in the centre dispensing his favours. With an out-raised arm, he directs the traffic. Those on the left are condemned downwards to the Hells of Charon and Minos while he subtly blesses the chosen ones on the right with his lower arm. For this work Michelangelo did not choose one set point from which it should be viewed and it has a multitude of foregrounds and backgrounds. He got his revenge on the purveyors of porcherie by portraying the Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena (who was the chief complainant of blasphemy), as Minos. Minos was the judge who, according to Dante’s Inferno, guarded the entrance to the second circle of Hell.

When Michelangelo was appointed chief architect for St Peter’s, he was into his seventies but showed no let-up in his workload. He sacked the fraudulent suppliers and contractors fiddling the Vatican's books. He changed the previous design of the extravagantly titled Antonio da Sangallo The Younger. He was responsible for the altar end of the building on the exterior and also for the final form of its dome, the single-most dominant feature of Rome's remarkable landscape.

Michelangelo Buonarroti died on February 18th, 1564, just shy of his 89th year, after what his doctors called a "slow fever." In his will, he left "his soul to God, his body to the earth, and his material possessions to his nearest relations." He was buried in Rome but his nephew Lionardo Buonarotti stole the corpse (concealed in a bale of hay) and took it back to Florence for re-interral. The Florentines came out in great numbers to venerate their illustrious fellow citizen, the "father and master of all the arts".

A genius of the highest order, he left an astonishing body of artistic work the like of which is incomparable before or since.

"Last judgement"
"Biography of Michelangelo"
and many,many pages in Wikipedia.

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